Review: Ali Smith’s Autumn, the first Brexit novel

Kate Bradley argues that Ali Smith’s Autumn is precisely the kind of book about Brexit we don’t need in our changing political climate.  

Autumn is a novel about Brexit. It’s also a book about Pop Art and family and nostalgia. But it’s mostly about Brexit, and after reading Autumn, it’s pretty clear that Ali Smith is devastated about it. From beginning to end, Smith strikes a mournful, anxious tone, looking ahead to the ‘winter’ of progressive politics that she predicts will follow the EU referendum vote. It explores a few weeks in the life of university lecturer Elisabeth Demand and her dying neighbour Daniel Gluck, a wise old man who stands in as a representation of the knowledge, open-mindedness and wisdom of the past. As Daniel enters his late-life ‘increased sleep period’, we accompany him through his dreams and through Elisabeth’s memories of him from her youth. Their relationship is woven into Elisabeth’s reflections on Brexit, serving as touching light relief from the book’s general gloominess. However, like much of Autumn, the relationship is tainted by the crude polemical point it is used to make.

According to Autumn, “it is the end of dialogue” (p.112), the world is cloven in two, and “all across the country, the country [is] split in pieces” (p.61). Throughout the book, Smith reduces the changes in her characters’ lives down to these binaries, and her main characters and readers are all assumed to agree with her political analysis. We are meant to think that Britain’s future is pretty daunting (which I agree it is), but also that everything can be reduced to the hard work of pleasant progressive people being ruined by horrible unreasonable others (which I think it can’t). In one scene, Elisabeth witnesses a group of nameless characters telling some Spanish tourists to “go back to Europe” (p.130). Some “nice” people have to save them by letting them into a taxi. There’s no attempt to explore the political views of the “nice” or nasty people, the motivations for the xenophobia or for the defence – after all, it’s the “end of dialogue”. Yet what’s the point of a novel about a changing political landscape that doesn’t attempt to understand anything apart from the author’s point of view? Why not write a monologue, or a Guardian column?

The novel’s reductiveness is even more evident in Smith’s humour, which in her other books was so playful and refreshing. In Autumn, the jokes mostly rely on observational comedy about red tape and other people’s pettiness, and every joke is laden with moralism about the way the world is heading. As it turns out, moralism kills humour dead. The jokes fall flat because their punchline is invariably “Isn’t the world dreadful?”. There are no answers or even subtle questions in Autumn, just fear followed by unconvincing images of hope, such as the clichéd rose still blooming at the end of the novel. It’s a shame, because Smith has shown she can do complexity, subtlety and humour so well in novels like How to Be Both.

Autumn certainly highlights the ways life has got worse for many people over the last 30 years. The problem is that it reaches out for nostalgia to draw the contrasts, and fails to imagine sites of resistance in the present as well as the past. For instance, the book culminates in Elisabeth’s mother hurling an antique at an electrified fence, “bombarding that fence with people’s history and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times” (p.255). Why would anyone think that the antique is from “less cruel and more philanthropic times”? When were those times? Britain’s history does not lend itself easily to progressive nationalism, even in the “people’s history” of Pop Artists and folk songs that she reaches to for examples. To appeal to past British culture as a place of open-mindedness and radical change requires a serious amount of forgetting, as Richard Seymour has argued so well.  

In What Is Literature?, Jean-Paul Sartre made the point that every choice of subject matter for art is also a silence on all others. Rather than leaving them implicit and marginal to her book, Smith could have written about the lives of refugees and migrants stuck at the borders of the UK or Europe, or people with complex attitudes to the EU referendum, or Muslims demonised by the UK government’s Prevent legislation, or EU migrants working in poor conditions who might now face deportation. Instead, she chose to represent the views of a white, British-born, middle-class liberal whose predictable views on Brexit are already vastly overrepresented in the media. This feels especially stark in the scene where Elisabeth goes to get her passport renewed. During several pages of cut-price Kafka, Elisabeth waits for hours to be seen and then has an argument with the post office staff about passport rules and regulations. The scene demonstrates the farcical bureaucracy borders generate for British citizens, but the focus seems trivial compared to other consequences of the border system, such as the high security detention centres which currently detain thousands of UK migrants. Immigration detention is mentioned later, but only in about ten words, in passing.

As it stands, Autumn is neither a satisfying read nor an effective response to today’s political realities  of deepening austerity, racism and immigration control. Its scope is limited by its unambitious subject matter, its lack of nuance and the narrow audience it seeks to please. Most of all, it’s limited by nostalgia for the 80s and 90s, a period which may have been boom-times for some, but also saw the destruction of any kind of working-class organisation that might have enabled people to challenge the inequality and violence they face today. Smith laments the proletarianisation of academics’ lives, but doesn’t depict or try to relate to those whose lives were a struggle even through the rosy times about which she is so keen to reminisce.

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